Conference Report: Holocaust Scholarship: Personal Trajectories, Professional Interpretations

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 18, Number 4 (December 2012)

Conference Report: Holocaust Scholarship: Personal Trajectories, Professional Interpretations, Capetown, South Africa, 20-22 August 2012

By Doris Bergen, University of Toronto

This conference, sponsored by the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town in association with the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation, revolved around the theme, “personal trajectories, professional interpretations.” In keeping with this, the organizers – Susannah Heschel, Michael Marrus, Milton Shain, and Christopher Browning – invited participants to reflect on connections between their life experience and their scholarship. Each of the sixteen speakers tackled this challenge in a different way. The result was an intense and stimulating three days with a surprising number of presentations that addressed religion, specifically Christianity and Judaism. My report focuses on those parts of the conference most relevant to contemporary church history.

Robert Ericksen spoke most directly to the history of Christianity, in a paper titled “Pastors and Professors: Assessing Complicity and Unfolding Complexity.” Ericksen asked whether the churches and universities as a whole were complicit in Nazi crimes. “Yes,” he answered. Their praise for Hitler was genuine, he maintained; their lack of resistance was evidence of overall support; and they played a significant role by granting the regime a kind of public permission for its existence and its actions. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s family never went to church, Ericksen noted, so “he didn’t catch that virus.” Ericksen’s presentation was not as personal as many of the others, although he began by presenting some formative moments, among them an hour-long conversation in 1989 with Emanuel Hirsch’s son. The topic: had Hirsch senior been a Nazi?

My paper was on “Protestants, Catholics, Mennonites, and Jews: Identities and Institutions in Holocaust Studies.” I used my research on the Volksdeutschen and the Wehrmacht chaplains to argue for the importance of ambiguous categories and institutional dynamics. Most relevant for our context, I analyzed how the chaplaincy served to legitimate the German war of annihilation. Rather than the familiar notions of “silent bystanders,” I showed Christians as participants – sometimes willing, sometimes reluctant – in the destruction of Jewish lives. I did not attribute these insights to the fact I am a “Mennonite farm girl from Saskatchewan” (as I was once introduced at a conference), but I did learn something about how religious institutions function from a decade at Notre Dame.

Karl Schleunes’s presentation, “Wrestling with the Holocaust,” looked back to publication in 1970 of The Twisted Road to Auschwitz. Often described as a foundational “functionalist” work, Schleuenes’s original edition did not even include the word “Holocaust.”  But it did inspire him to contemplate teaching a course on the subject, which he began to do in 1988, under the heading, “Holocaust: History and Meaning.” His religious upbringing, Schleunes told us, played a key role. He grew up a German Protestant in small-town Wisconsin, where he heard echoes of the Nazi era. The gospel accounts of the crucifixion – “May his blood be upon us and our children” – the myth of Jews as Christ-killers – these notions were deeply embedded in Christianity, Schleuenes said, not only in Luther’s “On the Jews and Their Lies,” but in the American Bible belt. When he tried to answer the question, “Why the Jews?,” he found the only way to do so was to begin with Christianity, a painful confrontation for many of his students.

But if Christian anti-Judaism were so crucial, asked Steven Aschheim, why did the Holocaust occur only in the 1940s? You can’t have continuity and uniqueness at the same time, he insisted. In his presentation, “Autobiography, Experience, and the Writing of History,” Aschheim emphasized the “massively transgressive nature of the Shoah.” It is not so much Judaism as “Jewishness” that interests him, he said, and the Germans who appealed most to him – Marx, Freud, Einstein, Kafka – were makers of modern universal thought whom he long didn’t even know were Jewish. Instead they embodied a humanizing impulse.  Aschheim, influenced by his childhood in South Africa and disillusioned with what he called the naïve Zionism of his youth, is currently writing a book on the political economy of empathy.

Antony Polonsky, who grew up just a few blocks from Aschheim, titled his talk, “From Johannesburg to Warsaw: How I Came to Write a Three-Volume History of the Jews of Poland and Russia.” Polonsky turned not to Zionism but to Communism, and he too grew disillusioned. In 1967-68 he identified with Polish students’ calls for democratic reform, and it pained him when the ANC supported the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia. Solidarity friends encouraged him to contact Jews in Poland, and in the 1980s he got involved in efforts to bridge the division between Jewish and Polish histories. His goal: to produce and foster scholarship that was neither sentimental nor negative.

David Cesarani gave one of the most personal presentations, under the tantalizing title, “Tony Judt and Me: Autobiographical Reflections on Writing History, the Holocaust, and Hairdressing.”  Highlighting parallels between his youth and Judt’s, Cesarani offered a glimpse into what it meant to grow up Jewish in Britain, where immigrants from many parts of the world crossed paths and where class, accent, and district of origin obstructed mobility. (Judt’s mother Stella grew up in a working-class district speaking Cockney; she was “very discreet about her Jewishness.”)

In “Holocaust and Comparative History” Steve Katz took a different approach and brought in his  personal details as jokes. (While at Cambridge Katz played cricket for his College, which made him “wicket keeper for Jesus.”) Katz’s main point was about the Holocaust’s singularity. With regard to the structure of mass murder, he contended, the Holocaust is distinct. In every other case, a central idea causes the violence but also limits it. Katz offered the example of the witch craze, which he described as rooted in Christian misogyny. But the Church found a way to domesticate the threat of women’s sexuality and offered not only Eve the seductress but also the Virgin Mary. The same is true of Christian antisemitism, Katz maintained: the Church did not murder the Jewish people; the Christian vision of Jews was dialectical. No comparable dialectic operated in the Shoah, Katz argued. For Hitler the Jewish issue was central, so every time there was a choice between the racially genocidal program and other options, the racially genocidal program won out.

In her paper, “From Lucy Dawidowicz to Timothy Snyder: Holocaust Studies Viewed from the Perspective of Jewish Studies,” Susannah Heschel provided a challenging and deeply humane perspective. She grew up among German Jewish refugees, and half her family are Hasidic rebbes. Yet her father’s friends included Christian theologians too, she noted, and he showed no bitterness or resentment. For him religion was the most important factor against racism and war. Heschel discovered the problems in Christian theology as a college student when she read Bultmann, she recalled. Protestant theologians were fascinated by racial theory and considered it modern and scientific. After the war the German Christians melted into the wider culture, and Christianity became a cover for old ideas – that the Jewish god was a violent god who commanded Jews to kill non-Jews; that Nazi obedience to authority came from Judaism.

Meanwhile, Heschel indicated, the field has its problems: Holocaust courses attract some people looking for an emotional experience, and instrumentalization of the Holocaust has become a “nightmare.” Where Dawidowicz promoted a sense of Jewish pride in being victims, Snyder’s book has a quality of ressentiment, and his explicit descriptions of horrors rob people of their humanity. For her part, Susannah said, she is returning to the sensibilities of her childhood. She misses the gentleness, piety, and holiness of the Hasidic rebbes and seeks to regain a sense of disbelief. At the same time, she concluded, yearning for religion cannot substitute for the hard work of democratic politics.

For those of us who were in South Africa for the first time, one of the most stimulating parts of the conference was the panel on “Nazism and Holocaust: Intersections with South African Experience.” Though religion was not a main focus, it came up here, too. According to David Welch, there is little evidence that Nazism had a direct influence on apartheid ideas. Certainly all of the rightist organizations were antisemitic, he observes, and the Afrikaans churches did not try to stop the Nazi virus from spreading in their communities. Still, apart from a few dissident clergy, they rejected the notion of a Nazi-style dictatorship. Milton Shain agreed that membership in South African Fascist groups was small but noted their high visibility. They exerted pressure against Jewish refugees from Germany and fueled wider attacks on Jews as promoters of miscegenation and enemies of the Afrikaner nation. When a ship with 500 Jewish refugees arrived in 1936, professors at Stellenbosch University led a protest.

An important intervention regarding Christianity came from a member of the audience, the freelance writer Claudia Braude. What about the discourse of forgiveness, she wanted to know. Hadn’t it been invoked in South Africa by people responsible for all manner of crimes, from corruption to murder, to push the burden of “reconciliation” onto the shoulders of those already victimized?  In South Africa, Braude maintained, a Christian “template of forgiveness” has reinforced a culture of impunity.